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Take Three / Three Views of the Southland | AL MARTINEZ

History Through a Child's Eyes

July 04, 1997|AL MARTINEZ

It was hot, it was wet, it was smoggy and it was thundery in Washington, D.C., last week, but by God through it all the flag was still there.

There was even a 45-minute power outage on the western end of Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, but one could see by the light of a big, yellow moon that the flag was still there.

And when lightning flashed and thunder shook the world, beating like drums against the corridors of power, the flag still whipped bravely against the gray and unsettled skies, its colors flashing defiance to the turmoil.

The observation in all instances was made with some wonder by my good friend Travis who had accompanied my wife and I to the nation's capital in celebration of his 13th birthday.

It was as though he was seeing the flag for the first time, overwhelmed by its presence in a setting of history and power, and he wanted me to see it that way too.

I'm not taken much with symbols, whether it's a national emblem or the logo on a jar of peanut butter. You won't find me out there campaigning for laws against the desecration of either one.

But witnessing anything through the eyes of a child is always a new experience no matter how many times one has seen what the child sees, and the sight of the flag was that way with me. Its colors glowed with a special radiance.

*

The trip was not intended to be taken in close proximity to Independence Day or to furnish me with a column on the 221st birthday of the nation, but I'm grateful for the coincidence.

I am also grateful for the equally coincidental thunder and darkness in Washington during our stay, for they are likely to fix what we saw into Travis' memory the way clashing cymbals punctuate a Stravinsky opus.

One is never certain what is absorbed by the young and what is discarded. Pubescence, if it isn't in full animation, often wears a mask. Was he bored? Did he hear? Does he care?

I wondered about it as we stood at the foot of a Thomas Jefferson statue in the rotunda of his memorial, looking up at the image of a man who in real life stood taller than any monument we could ever build.

I'm not good at teaching lessons so I simply allowed Travis to assimilate in silence what he was seeing. When he finally asked, "Who was he?" all I could think to do was read words from the Declaration of Independence chiseled into a wall of the memorial. "When in the course of human events. . . ."

Travis listened without comment and then stood back to take pictures of the man whose words and vision had shaped the contours of history's best effort at government by the people.

"He was the principal author of the Declaration," I said as we walked down the stairs. "He articulated freedom."

Travis nodded. "Cool," he said.

*

Both my wife and I sensed the boy's growing awe with what he was seeing by the way he hung on every word during a debate in the Senate, viewed with hushed silence the rooms of the White House and dismissed with scorn an incident on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

"Did you hear what she said?" he asked in a tone of derision, referring to a woman and a young boy. "She said, 'This is where "Forrest Gump" was filmed.' Is that all she thinks this is?"

We sat on the steps for awhile and ate red, white and blue Popsicles and watched flags flutter in the sticky air down the sides of the Reflecting Pool where peace marchers once gathered and where Martin Luther King voiced his dream in words still heard across the land.

There was much we wanted to show Travis and we wore ourselves out visiting America's repositories of history: the National Archives, the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, the FDR Monument, the U.S. Holocaust Museum. . . .

We saw memorials to war and talked about the wrenching pain of war's reality and a growing awareness of its futility. I wanted Travis to know that a free society should ultimately grow beyond cruelty. Even as it beats its chest it clears its mind. We learn. We evolve.

"We haven't always done everything right," I said as we concluded our trip. "But most of the time we do the best we can. We try."

The sky darkened and lightning flashed as we rode to Dulles International Airport. Thunder boomed over the White House and the U.S. Capitol and over the Jefferson Memorial, truly the drums of history and remembering.

In the sense that his observations were metaphorical as well as true, Travis was correct. We have endured many storms during the past 221 years. And the flag is indeed still there.

Al Martinez can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com

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